#541 The Night of the Hunter
1955 // USA // Charles Laughton
Criterion Collection (LINK)
A Hard World for Little Things
A self-proclaimed preacher, with H.A.T.E. tattooed on his left hand knuckles and L.O.V.E. on the other, speaks to the Lord humbly while driving a stolen car. He confesses his confusion over the number of widows that has been “involved” and prepares to accept any further request from the above. This first appearance of Preacher Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) immediately radiates a sense of eeriness and danger, partly owned to the preceding scene of discovery of a dead woman, which effectively arouses our curiosity. Soon we learn the Preacher’s repulsive desire via the sight of a switchblade piercing his coat-pocket like an erotic erection, and his desire for money when he tries to sweet talk his penitentiary’s cellmate Ben Harper (Peter Graves) into revealing the whereabouts of the stash of money Ben stole and hid just before being caught by the police. With a handful of scenes, Robert Mitchum has already displayed the hypocrisy and dishonesty, the sociopathic delusion and irresistible charm, the fierce determination and relentless cruelty. He is the bogey-man and the devil, the embodiment of evil in disguise of goodness, he is the looming shadow threatening the innocence, and the diabolical hunter tailing the “little things” at night.
The Night of the Hunter is first and foremost a tug of war between good and evil, a perpetual conflict since the Old Testament as demonstrated by the wrestle of the Preacher’s tattooed-hands. The phases and stories of Bible are cited fluidly throughout the film which based on Davis Grubb’s bestselling novel of the same name. Herein the evilness emerges discernibly, corrupting the world as witnessed by the eyes of children. On the other hand, the supposing “goodness” shelters no comfort for the children. For our young protagonist John Harper (Billy Chapin), his fundamental question is whom to trust and whom to believe in. His father Ben is arrested for robbery and later hung by law, before his arrest in front of his children, he requests John and John’s sister Pearl (Sally Jane) telling nobody the whereabouts of the stash of money he hid. The blue cops, the “good guys,” arrest his father; and later the supposed virtuous preacher, a surrogate of father figure, is highly suspicious. Indeed the purpose of the Preacher approaching John and his mother Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) is to acquire the money.
Soon the whole town, including John’s mother and Pearl, trust the Preacher wholeheartedly. Even though speaking in “God’s words”, Harry Powell is undoubtedly the devil, and Willa, like Eve, falls to the corruption, and eventually marries the devil. Shelley Winters exhibited a sensual vulnerability that serves the transformation convincingly from a deferential sweet mother to a woman of sexual torture and religious fanaticism. Whereas Powell’s fatal attraction to widows is a sign of Oedipal compulsion, his background history is never revealed but mystic enough to get you intrigued. With adults either to be untrustworthy, or ineffectual like the nice Uncle Birdie (James Gleason) who could only get drunk as to evade the responsibility after discovering the dead body of Willa submerged in the river, John and Pearl escape and ride on a boat along the river and, as bestowed by God, they find goodness.
Like all American story based on a river journey, The Night of Hunter has the indelible mark of Mark Twain. Then second half of the journey is of healing and salvation, leading to the final showdown between Good and Evil. The river sequence is often praised as the most memorable one and referred as the film’s central image. It is composed of a series of shots from different angles of the boat with the children on board, a Lullaby is sang by Pearl as to comfort their traumatized souls after all the preceded horrendous events, various creatures are posed in the foreground in a mythical vibe – frog, spider, turtle and rabbits. They appear as a natural blessing and benevolence to the indefensible children. But the evil is still on their tail, the Preacher riding a donkey appears on the horizon in silhouette, like a paper cutout from a story book; John hears the distant sound of his crooning “leaning, leaning” and asks “don’t he ever sleep?” As director Charles Laughton puts it, the film is “a fairy story, really a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale.” The visual style flourishes into the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen, a blend of naturalism and the mythical. Indeed the film opens with the image of Rachel Cooper (Lillian Gish) and the heads of several children on the background of a starry night. She is lecturing as in a Sunday school, “beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” she warns, foretelling the danger ahead.
Miss Cooper is the protecting Fairy sheltering the lost children, John and Pearl, in her house like the Seven Dwarves’ home. She becomes the maternal figure that the children lost, which is bought upon to John by the river, another maternal symbol. She offers love and strength without condition, it’s here they find the place they are able to call home. There are power and authority in Lillian Gish’s presence that have been slowly built up from the Griffith films, she serves to be a perfect contrary to Robert Mitchum’s, as scriptwriter James Agee put it, “projection of pessimistic intelligence.” The fight between good and evil is as mythical as a fable while as haunting as a Gothic horror. Visually, the film uses diagonal farming and slanted angels, providing an intensification as expressive as German Expressionism in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). The exemplary of the style is definitely the murder scene of Willa, in which she’s resting on bed like she’s offering herself as a sacrifice in a ritual while Powell tilting his head as he’s listening to the order from the Lord, the room is unrealistically lit with a highly self-conscious composition set, the theatricality ensures a tightened awareness from the audience. Additionally, the cellar is built relatively small to emphasize the Preacher’s greater size in relation to the children. Whereas Willa’s submerged body bounded on a sunken car with her long hair floating like seaweed has a mystical aura.
For the villainous Preacher, he slowly degraded into a cartoonist antagonist. He chases the children as in a Tom and Jerry dimensions, arrives at Miss Cooper’s house in the light sense of slapstick comedy, and gives out comedic yelping and shrieking after being shot by Miss Cooper’s shotgun. His subsequent comprehension by the police is consciously filmed to match the first arrest of John’s father Ben. Indeed the separate court scenes near the beginning of the film have already placed Ben and Harry Powell in the same standing position. Only at this particular moment of arrest would John overlap the images of the two father figures, both failing him tremendously. As François Truffaut called the film “a bizarre adventure, a cruel farce”, “it’s like a horrifying news item retold by small children.” What’s more horrifying than watching your father being arrested and your mother being murdered by your step father? As Miss Cooper comments after witnessing a owl sweeping down on a rabbit, “it’s a hard world for little things.”
The Night of the Hunter is an artistic triumph of Charles Laughton, although it took some twenty years for the film to establish itself widely as a masterpiece. The initial unsuccessful response both critically and financially hinder any further possible directorial effort from the great Laughton, hence The Night of the Hunter becomes his first and only directed film. Perhaps the film is too ambitious to be visualised as an unique blend of its own, the stylised art production by Hilyard Brown and the highly contrasted B&W photography by Stanley Cortez is too “composite” at its time. More than sixty years had passed, the film has now obtained an universal acclaim and is often been heralded as one of the best film ever made. The world is kind enough for a “little” good film after all.